‘Renoviction’ bylaw coming to Toronto?

By: Jeremy Nuttall, Vancouver Bureau, Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star
Toronto-area politicians say they intend  to push to implement laws similar to those adopted by a B.C. city to  combat so-called renovictions in Ontario.
New Westminster recently  won a court challenge to a bylaw it adopted in 2019, which has been  credited with eliminating renovictions — that is, landlords evicting  people under the guise of making renovations only to rent their units  out for far more money.
“We’ve just  been waiting for somebody to find out what the key is to unlock this  problem with renovictions, particularly in this really difficult time  around housing, and it looks like they may have,” Paula Fletcher,  councillor for Toronto-Danforth, said on Friday afternoon.
New  Westminster’s bylaw holds landlords of purpose-built rentals  responsible for the alternate accommodation of their tenants if they  need to leave a unit so it can be renovated and requires them to send  the tenant a written offer to move back into their unit or another one  at the same rate.
The bylaw is backed  up by fines and the prospect of not having business licenses renewed if  owners don’t comply. Landlords can also appeal to city council if they  feel they have a legitimate reason for not accommodating a tenant.
Late  last month, a challenge to the bylaw from a property owner was  dismissed by the B.C. Court of Appeal on the grounds the province’s  Community Charter gives the city the right to implement and enforce the  bylaw.
In the three years prior to  the bylaw, the city, a Vancouver suburb of more than 70,000, had 333  known renovictions and the number has had none since 2019. Jessica Bell,  housing critic for Ontario’s opposition NDP, said renovictions have  been a “huge problem” through Toronto, where she represents the downtown  riding of University-Rosedale.
Between  2015 and 2018, data from Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board shows a  149-per-cent increase in applications to remove tenants during  renovations. From April 2019 to the end of March 2020, the LTB received  582 applications to evict tenants for demolitions, conversions, repairs  or renovations.
And  Bell worries that rising market-rent costs will only provide an  incentive for further renovictions. “We expect, with the continuing boom  in housing prices, for more renters to be screwed,” she said. So she  supports assessing whether the New Westminster approach could “legally  work” somewhere like Toronto.
John  Mascarin, partner at Toronto law firm Aird Berlis, says the two  provinces aren’t too different in terrain. He noted that Ontario’s  Municipal Act and the City of Toronto Act are “very similar” in  structure to British Columbia’s Community Charter. Mascarin said there’s  actually many parts of Canada with laws similar to those of B.C.
“I  can certainly see why there’s interest in this case across the  country,” Mascarin said. “Most of the jurisdictions across Canada are  probably quite similar to the B.C. community charter, so you could  probably see these renoviction bylaws popping up throughout the  country.”
One question, he said, was  whether there was anything laid out in the province’s relationship with  municipalities, or residential tenancy laws, that could bar such a  bylaw.
But landlords say the measures aren’t needed.
President  and CEO of the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario, Tony  Irwin, said regulations meant to protect tenants and landlords are  adequate.
“The Ontario government  did make changes, they did strengthen tenant protections through Bill  184 and we think those protections are very strong,” Irwin said.
The bill, passed last year, increased fines on landlords who conduct illegal evictions.
Renters  charge the fines don’t deter landlords, but Irwin said the fines are  significant and can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a  corporation.
Three Toronto city  councillors, on Friday afternoon, said they’d support exploring whether  the measure could be adopted in the city.
Fletcher  pledged to raise the matter of New Westminster’s approach at a city  housing committee next week. “I will be bringing a letter to Planning  and Housing next week, asking staff to report very quickly on if any of  these options could work in Toronto, and then we can start moving in  that direction.”
A Toronto version  may have to look slightly different, Fletcher cautioned, owing to  different rules about residential rentals and the requirements on  landlords. In Toronto, apartment owners with three-plus stories or  10-plus units currently have to register via the RentSafeTO program.
But  if there was a way to use city powers to crack down on renovictions,  it’s worth exploring it as quickly as possible, she said.
“The  tenants really feel very, very vulnerable (during) renovictions,” she  said. “I think we’re ready to really look at some concrete actions  here.”
Coun. Mike Layton, who  represents the same ward as Bell, supports the approach. Layton said  sometimes, it takes “one brave municipality” going out on a limb with an  innovative policy for others to follow suit.
“Whatever opportunities or avenues that exist for us to have more accountability is … worth the undertaking,” he said.
Coun.  Ana Bailao, mayor John Tory’s advocate for affordable housing, agrees.  But she also believes staff have already been eyeing the rule changes in  New Westminster, noting that the executive director of Toronto’s  housing secretariat is a recent transplant from B.C., herself.
Bailão  said the issue was bigger than just introducing new rules; the task was  also to ensure rules on the books are enforced, and that tenants know  what rights they already have.
Dania Majid, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, believes the responsibility falls on the province.
Landlords  looking to make cash off renovictions will just move to the next  municipality if they cannot do it in Toronto, she said.
“It  could have broader impact, but, ideally, we would not want to see a  patchwork approach in Ontario,” she said. “We really need the province  to take control of this issue.”
—with a file from Emily Mathieu